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Soft Boy to Sensitive Man: Redefining Masculinity

I was raised by three strong women. After my dad checked out via divorce, when I was about five, I was left in the house with my two sisters and my mom. I was far from being a mama’s boy outwardly, but I was growing a soft heart, through the tragedy of the divorce and emasculation of my father. It really was his fault. But I was always the little man of the house. And sometimes that was a hard place to be.

I grew up stronger and bigger than many of my friends. I was a star on the football field from age 8, and all through school I was comfortable with the athletes and the smart kids. I was both. And I learned what boys were supposed to be like, from watching my sisters and hearing them talk about their boyfriends. I was going to learn to be the best boyfriend.

While I was physically imposing, I was conflict-averse. It was probably something about my dad’s huge rage, but I was never one to pick a fight, and I often used my strength and anger to keep fights from happening to me. But I was really afraid inside. I was terrified that someone would see that underneath the strong armor I was a wimp.

For the first time in my life, I was about 38, I no longer believed inherently that things were going to work out. And not just with my marriage, but with my life.

It was in my first marriage that I learned what real anger looked like. My then-wife turned out to be 95 pounds of mean when she got ticked off. And as that began to happen more and more in the later stages of our marriage, I learned to simply put a locked door between us. Of course, I could never strike back, but I could protect myself. But some part of this felt soft. Like I was letting her be the man or the aggressor.

In my second marriage, things played out a bit differently, but with a similar outcome. Where in the first marriage I had found a fiery artist to be with, in my second marriage I found an artist, but also a real intellectual. And she was business savvy too, and that was a plus because I was less competent with the numbers and budgets of things.

And while we had money, and the financial woes were still ahead of us, things were fine. My sensitive man wrote love poems and love songs and wanted to spend time being a daddy too. We had a pretty good run until 911 when the economy tanked and gutted my self-employment business.

And I wasn’t prepared for the fall. I wanted to stand up to the onslaught of drama and be the tough little football player I knew I still had inside me. But I wasn’t able to reach that far back. Instead, I got scared. And I got deeply scared like I’ve never been scared in my life.

For the first time in my life, I was about 38, I no longer believed inherently that things were going to work out. And not just with my marriage, but with my life. The inner voice that had always played a big role in my life was silent or whiney. I was freaking out.

Unfortunately, my then-wife was freaking out too. We had a lot to freak out about. We had money troubles that were sucking down our savings, we had a daughter in the womb who was at dire risk of being taken early. And some inner confidence I thought I had been born with, dropped out of me and I found moments when I wanted to crawl in the clothes closet and hide.

What I’ve since learned is I was regressing to some defensive coping mechanism that had worked for me as a child. Or I had hoped that it would work for me. But as an adult, I had no hope of it working. However, that didn’t prevent me from trying. What I was imagining, as a little boy in the woods, and a grown man in hiding, was that someone would come to resume me and make it all better. Someone to tell me, “It’s all going to be all right.”

But it wasn’t. And I knew it wasn’t. Yet I could not get to my anger, or confidence, or hope. That was the big thing. Somewhere inside I had lost hope. And my then-wife took up the slack as we stumbled along.

We balance each other, we carry each other’s water while things are tough.

The damage was done, however, and over the course of the next 5 years, we fluctuated between a balanced relationship and one where it appeared we had reversed masculine and feminine roles. Where I was sensitive and expressive, she was hard and calculating. Where I was emotional and fragile, she was strong and decisive. I will never forget how I gained my strength from being near hers.

But it wasn’t enough. And the economy didn’t give us any breaks. And through the next several years and several jobs, we both began to doubt our ability to regain happiness. And the sad depressed man that she had fallen in love with, was struggling to keep it together. And the money was going fast, and the spreadsheets didn’t add up.

She asked, once after we had finished doing yoga in the living room. “Do you think someone is going to rescue us?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well, they’re not. Get over it. This is it. It’s only us. There is no help coming.”

She was right. And while I felt the sadness and hopelessness for both of us, she sounded the war drums, initially to keep us solvent, but later to survive the splitting of our marriage. She has always been the stronger one. And she came to resent my affirmation of her strength. She wanted a strong man. She wanted a breadwinner. She wanted things to get easy again.

In a relationship, both partners hold parts of the whole to balance things out. If one partner doesn’t want to feel the anxiety of the struggles, the other partner will usually feel an excess of anxiety. And so on with most of the emotions. A loving expression might be easy for one of you, and harder for the other person. But this is part of the dance. We balance each other, we carry each other’s water while things are tough.

And my ex-wife carried our entire family for a long time while I struggled to regain my masculine identity. And in the end, she chose to seek a different partner for the future. And while it broke my heart, I did not fight to keep her in the marriage once she had expressed her plans to leave.

Today, I still recognize my too-sensitive side, and I try to counter worry and doubt by taking necessary action even when I don’t feel like it. And I wonder what my next partner might bring to the equation. And I will show up as a competent breadwinner AND sensitive man. Let’s see who that draws in.

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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As a certified life coach, I’ve been helping men and women find fulfilling relationships. If you’d like to chat for 30-minutes about your dating/relationship challenges, I always give the first 30-session away for free. LEARN ABOUT COACHING WITH JOHN. There are no obligations to continue. But I get excited every time I talk to someone new. I can offer new perspectives and experiences from my post-divorce dating journey. Most of all, I can offer hope.

Get the complete single dad story with John’s new book: Single Dad Seeks (available in all formats)

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image: Maurice Sendak, creative commons usage

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